A major sub-theme of the US Coin Values Advisor
site is to put in plain words the connection between the history of the
United States and its coinage. Both influence and react to the other. I
believe that in order to reap the full benefits of collecting, one must
have an understanding of the historical significance of their coins.
Let's look at seven examples of the coins/history relationship. I
could've come up with a lot more, but these more or less randomly
pulled off the top of my head.
1. The Missing 1815 Cent
1793 was the first
year the United States
Mint struck the one cent coin. In the 222 years since then, the lowly
cent has been minted every single year, with the sole exception of
1815. The War of 1812 against Great Britain and the
prelude leading up
to the conflict were responsible for this anomaly.
The Mint had been purchasing copper planchets
from the British firm of
Boulton, Watt & Company since the 1790's for coining into half
cents and cents. As relations between the United States and Great
Britain worsened, planchet hauls from Britain were interrupted in
January 1811. The Mint stopped making half cents altogether, but
continued to issue a decreasing quantity of cents until 1814, when
In September 1815, nine months after the final battle in the war was
fought, planchet shipments resumed, but it wasn't until the following
year, 1816, that cents were struck once again, missing coinage in 1815
completely. So, the US one cent coin is 221 out of 222 in terms of
consistency, by far the best of any United States coin denomination.
2. The 1848 "CAL." Quarter Eagle
Gold was discovered near Coloma,
California in January 1848. Word spread quickly, and by 1849, many
thousands of "49'ers" were on
their way to the west coast gold fields in search of riches.
A shipment of 228 ounces of California gold
ended up at the
Philadelphia Mint with special instructions: issue coins using this
gold and bearing a distinctive mark to indicate the origin of the
A special counter stamp was made to impart the lettering "CAL."
to 1,389 Quarter Eagles ($2.50 face value) dated 1848.
Genuine examples of the 1848 "CAL." Quarter Eagle show no damage on the
obverse (i.e. Heads side), a sure sign the counter stamp was punched
before the coin was
removed from the die. Ordinary 1848 Quarter Eagles altered to mimic the
"CAL." variety will show damage on the obverse as a result of force
applied to the reverse to stamp the fraudulent lettering.
The California Gold Rush proved to be a transformative event in the
settling of the American West. Since the colonial times, America had an
East Coast, but now, it also had a West Coast.
Ever since its issuance,
collectors have eagerly
sought to own an 1848 "CAL." Quarter Eagle, a literal piece of history.
The 1848 CAL. Quarter Eagle is one of the coins
tracked in our Rare Coin Values Index.
3. The 1864 "In God We Trust" Two Cent
The American Civil War
entered its fourth year in 1864, with no end in sight. As the bloody
conflict continued to exact its toll, more and more prayers were sent
to heaven in search of help from the Lord Almighty.
Reacting to the religious sentiment sweeping the nation, the newly
authorized two cent coin of 1864 bore the motto "In God We Trust",
marking the first time the Lord's name was placed on United States
coinage. The reference to God on the 1864 Two Cent coin began a
longstanding tradition in American coinage, though it wasn't until the
1950's that the placement of the motto was codified into law.
Imagine the howling of the anti-religious zealots in control of our
culture today if someone for the first time attempted to invoke God's
name on a US coin. It could never happen in modern day America.
4. The Coinage Act of 1873 Ignites a
A coinage act
passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses Grant on
February 12, 1873 inadvertently ignited a chain reaction of events
plunged the United States into one of the most severe economic
depressions in its history.
Among other things, the law put an end to silver
purchases by the
government, leading to a reduction in the money supply and causing
interest rates to rise, felt painfully by borrowers while raising
doubts about the future health of the economy. The gloomy outlook
dissuaded investors from purchasing long term bonds.
In this environment, Jay Cooke & Company, one the largest and most
private investment banks at the time, was unable to sell bonds to
finance the nation's second transcontinental railroad, and was forced
to file bankruptcy in September.
Other banks quickly collapsed, followed by business closures and
millions of lost jobs, setting off the "Panic of 1873". It wasn't until
1879 before economic conditions began to improve.
5. The "Panic of 1893" Snuffs Out the
Carson City Mint
On May 5,
1893, the New York Stock Exchange suddenly plunged in dramatic fashion,
sparking another serious economic depression in the United States.
Even before the downturn, the branch mint in
Carson City, NV had been
slowing down. Low silver prices and falling production from depleted
Nevada silver mines diminished the role of the Carson City Mint.
Furthermore, scandalous actions by a few employees tarnished the
mint's already less than stellar reputation.
Few were surprised when on June 1, 1893, Director Robert Preston
ordered a cessation of coining operations at Carson City, but kept its
doors open as an assay office. Conventional wisdom was that the shut
down would be temporary; once business conditions improved, the coining
presses would be fired up again.
That never happened, as there were to be no more "CC" coins ever.
R.I.P. Carson City Mint (1869-1893).
6. 1916 Walking Liberty Half Dollar
World War I erupted in Europe in
1914. The United States remained officially neutral on the sidelines
first few years of the war, nervously hoping its allies would emerge
In 1916, three new US coins were released into circulation: the Mercury
Dime, the Standing Liberty Quarter, and the Walking Liberty Half
Dollar. The designer of the half dollar (as well as the dime),
A. Weinman, selected a deeply patriotic theme.
The obverse depicted Lady Liberty draped in the
stars and stripes,
marching toward the sunrise. The reverse was dominated by a powerful
eagle poised for flight, with fearsome talons ready for action.
Weinman's design was widely acclaimed for its majestic beauty, but the
imagery was also intended to be a warning to any potential adversaries:
the United States had matured into a world power and could respond with
devastating force if provoked.
The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Soon, Germany
and the other members of the Central Powers experienced first hand that
Weinman's depiction of America's might was more than just a theory. As
American "doughboys" and armaments arrived on the scene, the balance of
power tilted solidly in favor of the Allies. On November 11, 1918, what
was then up to that point in time the costliest war in human history,
came to an end.
7. 1943 Steel Cent Assists the WWII
The United States formally entered World War II
in December, 1941. As the nation mobilized for war, more and more
copper was needed for ammunition and other military purposes.
Copper that would have been used to make the 1943 Lincoln Cents was
diverted to the war effort. In its place was a cent composed of steel
with a zinc coat. The steel pennies were magnetic and weighed 13% less
than the copper cent.
The "steelies" did not perform as well as hoped. Because they could be
picked up with a magnetic, they did not work in vending machines. They
also rusted easily. Mint officials realized they needed to come up with
a better plan in time for the 1944 cents. More than one billion 1943
steel cents were struck.
A better plan was indeed developed. Spent shell casings were salvaged
from the battlefronts overseas and recycled into pennies. The alloy
wasn't quite the same as the pre-war composition, but close enough. The
recycled casing copper cents were produced by the billions in 1944,
1945, and 1946. The pre-war composition resumed in 1947.
Many thanks go to Anne Dayton for making the
beautiful photo below
available on Flickr.
These are but a few examples of how United
States coins reflect history
as well as shape the future. Seems as if I picked mostly examples
related to wartime events here, but there are plenty more stories to
tell. If you would like to make a contribution to this topic, I invite
you to use our feedback form.